Inside a lab at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, researchers are doing something truly remarkable. They are growing tiny versions of developing human brains in order to study everything from Alzheimer’s disease to the Zika virus. Alysson Muotri is the co-director of the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program and leads the team researching brain organoids. He recently sat down with Dr. David Granet on Health Matters to discuss the endless possibilities of his research.
Muotri’s organoids are often referred to as “mini-brains,” but they are far from what that name might suggest. The organoids are grown from stem cells, which are harvested from living tissue, such as skin cells. Researchers give those stem cells instructions to become neural cells. Eventually they form tiny clusters of neural cells, about the size of a pea. Those clusters have been shown to exhibit some of the same characteristics of developing human brains, including firing electrical signals in specific patterns. But, the organoids do not contain every type of brain tissue, and have no vascularization.
Despite the differences with the human brain, organoids have proven useful in understanding and treating disease. One of the major successes of Muotri’s research was finding and testing an existing drug to treat mothers infected with Zika virus. The drug can prevent the disease from being passed to the baby and causing microcephaly. Muotri is hoping his lab will continue to have success using the organoids as an effective brain model to find more cures, and provide a deeper understanding of brain development and disease. And, his work isn’t limited to Earth. Muotri recently launched his organoids into space for a groundbreaking study.
Watch — Using Stem Cells to Research the Brain – Health Matters
What makes us human is a question that not only science asks, but all disciplines of mind from philosophy to religion to sociology and ethics, and even to storytelling and the arts.
Tim Disney’s new movie “William” is about a Neanderthal living in the modern world and forces us to ask about humanness and many other questions.
Disney’s movie provides a foil to explore many facets of human nature and sociology, and raises questions about technology and its present and future effects on the human phenomenon.
With research interests and experience exploring the distinctions in the Neanderthal and Human genomes, Alysson Muotri, Director of the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program, brought together a panel of experts from across a spectrum of disciplines to explore these issues in a lively and engaging forum with the movie’s creator.
Watch — Neanderthal Among Us? Science Meets Fiction – A Discussion of Tim Disney’s Motion Picture “William”
Inside of each brain, there is the possibility to understand how trillions of neural connections come to sense the world, record memories, create an individual, and shape who you are and who you will become. Can we ever learn how this happens?
By using cortical organoids – self organized clusters of neurons generated by stem cells, that is what Alysson Muotri’s lab at the Sanford Consortium for regenerative medicine wants to learn.
Called “brain organoids” because they exhibit many of the characteristics of a developing brain they are asking what happens to build a brain? What happens to create a human mind, and who we are? How does this process become disordered, giving rise to conditions like autism, schizophrenia, epilepsy, and degeneration? And how can they find ways to intervene and rescue the mind from disorders, and even restore lost function?
Muotri’s lab and a host of collaborators in and out of UC San Diego are using a diverse array of methods and tools on these brain organoids, from researching the details of vision to how neurons connect and form networks, to engineering ways to help the organoids become more complex, to the differences between normal brains and brains with cognitive disorders, even to growing brain organoids in space to understand causes of autism and Alzheimer’s disease.
Join Alysson Muotri, Director of the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program as he takes you on a journey to visit the labs and collaborators who are exploring how a brain is built on Building the Brain.
Watch — Building The Brain With Alysson Muotri
“All the best models are the ones that you can improve in complexity to get closer and closer to the reality.”
The idea of a brain in a dish may sound like science fiction to some but scientists are becoming more and more adept at creating cortical organoids in the lab. The organoids are models of what is happening in utero as the brain forms. Being able to study this kind of human development not only opens new insights into neurological conditions but raises ethical questions.
Alysson Muotri, director of the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program, gives a look at how his lab is using these organoids to model specific conditions, treat disease, and explore fundamental brain mechanisms. Learn what the limitations, future projections, and ethical concerns are surrounding this exciting science.
Watch Re-constructing Brains in the Lab to Revolutionize Neuroscience – Exploring Ethics
Try to remember the first time in your life when you imagined something. It may have been imagining what was behind the door or under the bed, or a fantastic universe of wonders and exciting adventure. As children, our imaginations are furtive and encouraged as ways in which we develop our cognitive capabilities. As we grow older, we may not imagine in quite the same ways, but we continue to heavily use and depend on our imagination in our daily lives, imagining different situations that might occur in a few moments or in a few years. Thus, we actually spend a large amount of time in our own particular universe imagining many possible different ones.
Why do we do this and how did this capacity evolve in humans? Imagination probably helped our ancestors to be successful in making decisions and live in complex societies, and imagination is key to advancing technology. In this CARTA symposium, imagination is explored as a unique and enhanced human ability, and experts from all fields discuss its evolutionary origins, the fundamental genetic and neurological basis of human imagination, the impact of human imagination in science and art, and the consequences of imagination impairment.
Browse more programs in CARTA: Imagination and Human Origins