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Reflections from Brains in a Dish

Philip Ball discusses his involvement in the Brains in a Dish project, explaining how UCL researchers are have grown neurons out of his skin cells.
I write mostly about science, particularly about science and its relationship to the broader culture. So some of what I do is straightforward science reporting, but a lot of it is trying to contextualise science. The Brains in a Dish project was kind of instigated by Charlie Murphy, an artist who is one of the core team at Created Out of Mind. And she’s been driving it along. There are four of us taking part. And each of us is having a brain, you could say, grown in a dish, or in fact, several brains grown in a dish, and this sounds extraordinary, and in fact, it is extraordinary.
But this is how it works, really, that researchers at UCL in the Department of Neurology have taken from each of us a little bit of flesh, of skin, really, from our arms, from our shoulders, a tiny little bit. And from that, they grow cells. They allow the cells within that bit of flesh to proliferate in a culture medium, in a Petri dish. But then they do something remarkable to transform those cells. First of all, they treat them in a way that turns them back into what are called stem cells. And these are the cells from which our entire body grows as we develop from an embryo, from a fertilised egg.
So stem cells can develop into any tissue of the body. And as they grow, the stem cells specialise. They become particular tissues, heart tissue or lung tissue or liver tissue or whatever. But this technique enables the researchers at UCL - and it’s Selina Wray and Chris Lovejoy who are doing the hard work here - they turn them back into a stem cell like state, from the sort of skin cell like state that they initially have. And then once they’re in that state, they can develop along a different path. And Selina and Chris know how to get these cells to develop as neurons, basically as the nerve cells in our brains.
So they start to grow as neurons, but what’s extraordinary about it is that the neurons know– if you could say they know how to build a brain. So they don’t just grow as a vague clump of neurons. They start to develop into brain like structures in the Petri dish in the culture. And they will continue to grow until they’re maybe, the clusters are about a few millimetres across, about the size of a pea really. Selina and Chris are doing this work in order to try to understand the early onset of some forms of dementia, in particular of Alzheimer’s.
And so by growing these little brain organoids, they can start to understand and unravel the genetics of that process and perhaps to see what goes wrong that leads to this early onset Alzheimer’s. At the moment, the research that Selina and Chris are doing at UCL is very much geared towards understanding, rather than curing, rather than treating dementia. So it’s really by growing these organoids that they’re looking at the processes that lead to dementia, to these forms of dementia. It has been deeply interesting for me to see how it feels like to have what is really a piece of me growing in a lab across London. These neurons are signalling to each other.
They’re not in any sense, thinking, but they’re doing what my own brain cells do. And it’s not impossible to imagine making these structures even more brain like. If we can find a way of giving them in the Petri dish the kind of signals that the body would give as a brain grows in a developing embryo, what does that mean? How should we think about that entity? And is it an entity that’s somehow related to me? Legally, it isn’t, which is quite interesting. It’s now a cell line. It’s not a piece of my tissue, because it’s been grown outside of my body, developed outside of my body. But you know, genetically, it’s me.
And so for me, it’s raised interesting questions about how we think about identity and how that’s bound up with the body. And in particular, we associate identity strongly with the brain. You know, if this was a piece of heart or liver of mine, it would feel different. But there’s something about the brain that is special.

Science writer Philip Ball discusses his involvement in Created Out of Mind’s Brains in a Dish project, explaining how researchers at UCL have taken skin cells and grown them into brain cells (neurons) to help investigate how people may develop dementia.

The project has led Phil to ask himself a number of moral, ethical and philosophical questions about the relationship between the body, brain and identity, which are particularly pertinent to the dementia experience.

You can read more about Phil’s reflections in the two additional blog posts included below in the ‘See Also’ section.

What are your thoughts on how a person’s identity is linked to their brain, and more specifically, their brain cells? Do you feel hopeful about the scientific potential that research such as the Brains in a Dish project holds for the future of understanding the causes of dementia? How would you feel about giving a small piece of your skin and having these grown into neurons in a laboratory, knowing that these no longer belong to you? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments.

CREDITS We would like to extend a special thank you to the following individuals and organisations for providing supplementary footage and images for this video: * Lab footage: clips from video work ‘Skin to Mind, Part 1’ (2017), Charlie Murphy/ Created Out of Mind * Images: Christopher Lovejoy/ Created Out of Mind/ UCL * Selina Wray/ UCL.
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Dementia and the Arts: Sharing Practice, Developing Understanding and Enhancing Lives

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