Stranger than fiction

Lab-made mini brain develops its own ‘eyes’

Researchers hope organoid development will prove useful for studying human brain

Scientists have grown mini brains with their own sets of “eyes” that can detect light in a groundbreaking new study.

“The human brain is one of the most ridiculously complex things nature has ever concocted, so to help us understand it better, scientists have been making miniature versions in the lab,” explains New Atlas.

These miniature versions of organs, called organoids, can then be used to study development, disease or the effects of drugs.

In the past, scientists have developed tiny beating hearts and even tear ducts that can cry, explains Live Science. Now, researchers from University Hospital Dusseldorf and elsewhere have grown brain organoids that boast structures similar to eyes called “optic cups” that give rise to the retina – the tissue that sits in the back of the eye and contains light-sensing cells.

The “eyes” respond to light by sending signals to the rest of the brain tissue, says New Scientist.

The researchers hope their study, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, will prove useful for studying human brain development, particularly during embryonic stages, and related diseases.

“The human brain organoids formed optic cups, which appeared as early as 30 days and matured as visible structures within 50 days,” said a statement from Cell Press.

It explains that this time frame is similar to the retinal development in human embryos, which means the research could benefit other developmental neurobiology experiments. Researchers generated 314 brain organoids, 72% of which formed optic cups, “showing that the method is reproducible”, says the statement. 

“Our work highlights the remarkable ability of brain organoids to generate primitive sensory structures that are light sensitive and harbour cell types similar to those found in the body,” said Jay Gopalakrishnan, of University Hospital Dusseldorf, the lead author of the study. 

“These organoids can help to study brain-eye interactions during embryo development, model congenital retinal disorders, and generate patient-specific retinal cell types for personalised drug testing and transplantation therapies.”

The research team hopes to develop strategies for keeping these structures viable on longer timescales for performing more in-depth research with huge potential.

However, New Atlas says that “while these brain organoids remain very rudimentary, if they continue to advance they might one day raise ethical concerns”. 

It explains that previous studies have detected brainwaves in organoids similar to those of pre-term babies so there are questions about whether future development could lead to a form of self-awareness or even consciousness.

“Sensory input like vision might be a key ingredient for this,” says the site. “It’s an issue that scientists will need to keep an eye on.”

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