The CRISPR/Cas genome editing techniques, which I’ve written about previously were put to interesting use recently when human stem cells were edited into Neanderthal stem cells and then grown into pea-sized “minibrains” that mimic the cortex of ancient Neanderthals.
Minibrains are organoids. Organoids are miniaturized and simplified versions of organs produced in vitro, that show realistic micro-anatomy. The science of organoids has expanded rapidly since the early 2010s, to create all kinds of organs besides brains, including intestines, livers, pancreata, testes, thyroids, thymic glands, stomachs tongues, kidneys and hearts.
Alysson Muotri, a geneticist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) described how his group created these Neanderthal brain organoids at a UCSD conference last week, saying, “We’re trying to recreate Neanderthal minds.”
The Neanderthal minibrains differ from human ones in their shape and in their neuronal networks, including some that may have influenced the species’ ability to socialize.
Muotri, who has a stepson with autism noted that several of these differences resemble those that he has found studying neuronal development in children with autism. “In modern humans, these types of changes are linked to defects in brain development that are needed for socialization. If we believe that’s one of our advantages over Neanderthals, it’s relevant.”
When CRISPR/Cas genome editing was legalized in Britain in 2016, many were alarmed that edited humans might be born by 2017 and the next part of this story raises another potentially scary transhuman spectre.
Muotri has grown modern human minibrains to the stage where his team can detect their oscillating electrical signals, so they’re currently wiring the organoids to crab-shaped robots, hoping to study the ability of these organoids to learn to control the robots’ movements and then to have these robots compete with other robots controlled by Neanderthal minibrains. Eek.