Let’s 3D-print a working brain. What could go wrong?

4 minute read

Every now and then, humans do truly dubious things in the name of science.

We’ve all seen Blade Runner, right? Sci-fi classic from 1982? Directed by Ridley Scott, starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young?

The premise of the movie is simple. Bioengineered humanoids are a thing. Harrison Ford is a cop whose mission is to exterminate them, because they don’t play well with others. It gets complicated from there. The big problem is, how do you tell a human from a humanoid?

Bloody good question. And as time goes on and humanity gets nuttier and nuttier, apparently it’s a question we might actually have to ask ourselves at some point.

Why, I hear you ask?

Because some researchers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison – a town I know well and can only recommend as a place where the boredom will drive you to eat a lot of cheese and come up with INSANE things to research – have … wait for it … 3D-printed brain tissue that can grow and function like “typical” brain tissue.

What. The. Actual. Frontal lobe??

Why? In the name of all things sensible, why??

Oh, the brain-building boffins will tell you it’s all in the name of good medicine.

“This could be a hugely powerful model to help us understand how brain cells and parts of the brain communicate in humans,” said Su-Chun Zhang, professor of neuroscience and neurology at UW-Madison’s Waisman Center.

“It could change the way we look at stem cell biology, neuroscience, and the pathogenesis of many neurological and psychiatric disorders.”

Uh-huh. Right up until the day the Department of Defence rides in and confiscates all your files, chips, petri dishes and data, dude. Because wouldn’t that be a nifty thing to have? An army of 3D-printed soldier bots.

Good lord. Do these people not watch television? I would have thought these researchers would be right in the demographic obsessed with Star Wars: The Clone Wars but apparently that’s just made ’em keen to give it a go themselves.

Instead of using the traditional 3D-printing approach, stacking layers vertically, the researchers went horizontally. They situated neurons grown from induced pluripotent stem cells, in a softer “bio-ink” gel than previous attempts had employed.

“The tissue still has enough structure to hold together but it is soft enough to allow the neurons to grow into each other and start talking to each other,” said Professor Zhang.

The cells are laid next to each other like pencils laid next to each other on a tabletop.

“Our tissue stays relatively thin and this makes it easy for the neurons to get enough oxygen and enough nutrients from the growth media,” said another member of the team, Yuanwei Yan.

The cells can speak to each other. The printed cells reach through the medium to form connections inside each printed layer as well as across layers, forming networks comparable to human brains. The neurons communicate, send signals, interact with each other through neurotransmitters, and even form proper networks with support cells that were added to the printed tissue.

“We printed the cerebral cortex and the striatum and what we found was quite striking,” Professor Zhang said.

I bet.

“Even when we printed different cells belonging to different parts of the brain, they were still able to talk to each other in a very special and specific way.”

Oh good.

Look, I’m all for progress, really, I am. But I cannot believe I am the only person on the planet bothered by this. Who is running that ethics committee?

We might as well just lie down and hand the keys to Skynet right now. J Robert Oppenheimer would be spinning in his grave.

Send possibly sentient story tips to penny@medicalrepublic.com.au.

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