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  • Rishika Didwania

Mini Brains: Solving Big Problems

What is a mini brain? A brain organoid or ‘mini brain’ is a blob of cells, roughly the size of an eraser at the back of a pencil, which can emulate the structure of the powerful human brain. It can be cultivated from a mere sample of your skin cells! However, why would we need such a thing?

“The brain is a world consisting of a number of unexplored continents and great stretches of unknown territory.”     — Santiago Ramón y Cajal

For centuries, neuroscientists have been trying to understand the brain using animal models, post-mortems, MRI scans, etc. Although we have learnt a lot through these methods, we still face prominent challenges. The human brain, shielded by the thick skull and embedded in layers and layers of protective tissue, is extremely difficult to observe in action. 

Enter mini brains, which are providing a fresh perspective on tumor research, neural diseases and much more. To prepare one, skin cells of an individual are developed into ‘undifferentiated stem cells’, which are cells that can develop into any tissue of the body. With the perfect combination of nutrients it then becomes a neural stem cell and in the presence of special conditions, it marvelously grows into a tiny version of an early developing brain.

With this brilliant tool, age-old questions about the brain are finally being answered.

For example, ‘Microcephaly’ causes patients to have a smaller brain than usual, but nobody knows why. This disorder doesn't have a similar effect on mice, making it difficult to study. Thus, the organoid approach was employed. Skin cells of a patient suffering from Microcephaly were used to generate the brain organoid. Amazingly, it was smaller and had fewer neurons too. It helped identify the reason for a smaller brain, which had been evading humans for decades.

Naturally, growing brains in a lab does raise ethical concerns like, can they think and reason for themselves? The answer is no! The organoid is like a Lego toy taken apart and joined together again at random. All the pieces of different sizes and colors remain the same and can be studied, but it can never function like the original toy.

Mini brains have the world at its feet and with luck, can help solve big problems in the near future!

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