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Boffins grow brains in petri dish

Manmade rat neurons with memories

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For a chunk of the 20th century, SF writers played around with various “brain in a jar” scenarios, and now, it’s come true.

Well, only a little bit: it’s not a complete brain, and it’s a petri dish rather than a jar, but according to University of Pittsburgh researchers, they’ve managed to culture rat hippocampus cells, complete with memories, into a network able to sustain brain-like activity for as much as 12 seconds.

This allows the researchers to study how the brain cells hold and transmit an electrical charge – which, they claim, provides a gateway to studying the formation and transmission of memory between the cells.

As the paper’s abstract notes, “Persistent activity in the brain is involved in working memory and motor planning.”

In a living brain, the researchers note that it is difficult to study the mechanisms that underpin the formation of memory. By creating cells and networks that can sustain electrical activity in a petrie dish, the researchers get a sample that can be examined – without having to invade a brain in a living creature.

“The brain’s complex structure and the diminutive scale of neural networks mean that observing this activity in real time can be nearly impossible,” writes lead researcher Henry Zeringue.

To produce the cell networks, the researchers put adhesive proteins on silicon disks, and cultured embryonic rat hippocampus cells onto these disks. As they grew, they formed natural networks which could then be stimulated for the experiments. ®

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