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Australian scientists have grown ‘mini brains’ and zapped them to life with electricity

Brigid O’Connell, December 5, 2019 6:45PM Herald Sun

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In a world first, Australian scientists are growing “mini brains” and zapping them with electricity to make them come to life. media_cameraIn a world first, Australian scientists are growing “mini brains” and zapping them with electricity to make them come to life.

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Australian scientists are zapping “mini brains” they have grown in a laboratory to make them come to life.

It’s a real-life, good-news version of the famous novel Frankenstein, about a scientist who brings a monster to life in a mysterious lab experiment.

The real “mini brains” are living, human, brain-like pieces grown from adult skin cells.

University of Wollongong (NSW) scientists, who will present their world-first research at the Australasian Neuroscience Society meeting in Adelaide, South Australia this week, say their breakthrough will first be used to more accurately test medicines for common brain diseases.

“By testing it with 3D human tissues* at the bench (rather than in a person), you can get a better idea and have greater confidence in how the drugs work in human tissues,” said lead researcher Associate Professor Jeremy Crook.

The development could also lead to electrically stimulating* a patient’s brain to boost how well medicines work, so that the patient can take a smaller dose for a greater effect.

In the future, the techniques could be used to create human tissue that can be transplanted into the human body to repair injured sites.

Petri Dish media_cameraThe scientists are growing the “mini brains” in a container called a petri dish and then setting the cells in a gel so electricity can be passed through the gel. Picture: iStock

GROWING ‘MINI BRAINS’
The technique of creating these “brains on the dish” – which means they are grown in a special dish in a laboratory – starts with human skin or blood cells.

These cells are reprogrammed to become a type of stem cell. Stem cells are cells that can be turned into any sort of specialised cell in the body, a bit like a wildcard in UNO or a blank tile in Scrabble.

In this case, they are turned into brain cells.

The cells are then set in gel and electricity is passed through the cell-and-gel mixture to stimulate their development into balls of connected, functioning brain cells.

Assoc Prof Crook said their work was based on using electricity in the way it is naturally used in the human body.

“All the tissues in our bodies have bio* electricity. It’s important for the way the cells behave during development in utero*, and it’s also important for tissue healing after injury or trauma*,” Associate Prof Crook said.

“We’re not trying to generate a monster or whole person here like Frankenstein, but we’re applying electrical stimulation to activate* tissue development and function.

“Our technology allows us to mature the cells more quickly and they become more responsive* to drug treatment after stimulation.”

Boris Karloff as the monster in The Bride of Frankenstein 1935. Universal Films media_cameraBoris Karloff as the monster in the 1935 film called The Bride of Frankenstein.

FRANKENSTEIN
English writer Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, is one of the world’s most famous novels and many regard it as the first science-fiction story.

Shelley was only 20 when it was published in 1818. The idea came to her in a dream.

It tells the story of a young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who tries to create a beautiful human-like person but instead creates a huge and ugly monster. When the creature comes to life, he’s so horrified by what he has created he runs away.

The novel doesn’t explain how the monster comes to life, but many later versions of the story suggest electrical currents or a mysterious spark are used. In some versions, the scientist captures the electricity from lightning.

The monster’s character is so well known it pops up everywhere, including as a Halloween costume. Many people think the monster’s name is Frankenstein, but the scientist didn’t give it a name, instead referring to it as the creature, the thing, being, devil and many other words.

GLOSSARY

  • tissues: a group of cells of a living or once living thing; skin or muscle are types of tissue
  • stimulating: making something start to happen
  • bio: to do with living things
  • in utero: before birth
  • trauma: damage or injury
  • activate: make something happen
  • responsive: changes as a reaction to a stimulus, or something happening to it

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. What would be a benefit of boosting how well medicines work?
  2. Explain what you understand stem cells to be.
  3. Are the scientists trying to create a whole person?
  4. List three facts about Frankenstein the novel.
  5. In the original novel, how did the monster come to life?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Interview a scientist
Imagine you had the opportunity to interview the lead scientist involved in this research. What would you ask?

After reading the article, come up with 5 questions not answered in the article that you would like to ask about the science involved in this research.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science

2. Extension
Can you write your own Frankenstein story?

Use the information in the article to help you set the scene to write your own science-fiction story. Begin your story including details of why the ‘brains’ were being grown. You might like to introduce characters (for example: scientists working in the laboratory, cleaners, an evil scientist). Then you need to create a ‘problem’ (or complication) for your story. What happens to the brains? Do they come alive? Or does a character decide to use them for ‘evil’? How can your characters solve the problem? Think of a fitting solution to the problem and a conclusion to your story.

When telling your story, use descriptive language that helps your reader to imagine what is happening and what the scene looks like. You can make your story, scary (like the original Frankenstein) or more comical.

Time: allow 50 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science

VCOP ACTIVITY
After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many connectives as you can find in pink. Discuss if these are being used as conjunctions, or to join ideas and create flow.

HAVE YOUR SAY: How does it make you feel to think scientists are growing and powering up brain cells? Do you think it’s great or not?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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