It took 12 weeks to grow this tiny brain in a petri dish. It could revolutionize neuroscience.

Imagine a brain ravaged by neurological disease. Now imagine winding back the clock to before the damage was done.

I'm not trying to bum you out, I swear! Just picture it for a second.


Not much to look at, is it? Photo by DJ_/Flickr.

What if you knew that a person — or their brain, specifically — was almost guaranteed to develop a serious disease? Imagine what doctors could learn by watching it grow and develop, knowing precisely what to look for from the beginning. They'd chart and study it at every milestone, and they'd be able to pinpoint exactly when, and maybe exactly why, things started to go wrong.

From there, who knows what might happen. It could lead to big breakthroughs in treatment for diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. It could even lead to a cure.

Amazingly, we just got a little bit closer to that reality.

A team at The Ohio State University has grown a near-complete human brain in a petri dish. And it could give us some incredible answers.

Dr. Rene Anand took human skin cells and, over the course of about 12 weeks, turned them into a brain on par with about 99% of what you'd find in a five-week-old fetus.

Don't worry; the brain, which is about the size of a pencil eraser, isn't conscious. "We don't have any sensory stimuli entering the brain. This brain is not thinking in any way," Anand said. (Good to know it won't be plotting our demise any time soon.)

But it does have pretty much everything else that makes a brain a brain, including a spinal cord, a retina, and all the proper circuitry. The only thing it's missing is a heart to pump blood through it, but Dr. Anand hopes to hook the brain up to an artificial one someday soon.

Simply put, it's the most complete model of the human brain ever created. Before this, the best we'd ever done was still missing some pretty important stuff (you gotta have that cerebellum), and before that, the best we could muster were some replica rat brains.

Why go through all the trouble of growing a brain from scratch? Because it sure beats the alternatives.

An fMRI can't compete with poking and prodding a real, live brain. Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images.

There's so much that we don't know about the human brain. OK, so we know it looks like a chewed-up piece of gum. And that it starts to hurt when we stare at long division problems too long.

But what really happens to our brains when we get a concussion? What causes Parkinson's? How can we prevent strokes? Those are the questions that this brain might answer.

Dr. Anand hasn't yet given a full description of how he got skin cells to grow into a three-dimensional brain. (Previous teams have had some success with little tiny scaffolds for the cells to climb and grow on — kind of like itty-bitty jungle gyms.) But assuming his methods can be duplicated by others, and personalized (that's right! one day they might be able to grow a little replica of your very own brain), we could be on the verge of a really exciting future.

At the very least, these lab-created brains will give us a way to test new drugs on the human nervous system rather than on animals. It's more humane and much more effective. We'll also be able to find clues behind the causes of certain diseases, catch things we can't see in postmortem exams, and spot things we can only see through expensive and invasive testing.

Dr. Anand also says that his team's "organoid" brain might not be done growing. It could turn into a full, 100% genetic replica of a small fetus brain.

That's still pretty tiny, but it's room enough to hold a whole new world of possibility.

RODNAE Productions via Pexels
True

The past year has changed the way a lot of people see the world and brought the importance of global change to the forefront. However, even social impact entrepreneurs have had to adapt to the changing circumstances brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic.

"The first barrier is lack of funding. COVID-19 has deeply impacted many of our supporters, and we presume it will continue to do so. Current market volatility has caused many of our supporters to scale back or withdraw their support altogether," said Brisa de Angulo, co-founder of A Breeze of Hope Foundation, a non-profit that prevents childhood sexual violence in Bolivia and winner of the 2020 Elevate Prize.

To help social entrepreneurs scale their impact for the second year in a row, The Elevate Prize is awarding $5 million to 10 innovators, activists, and problem–solvers who are making a difference in their communities every day.

"We want to see extraordinary people leading high-impact projects that are elevating opportunities for all people, elevating issues and their solutions, or elevating understanding of and between people," The Elevate Prize website states.

Founded in 2019 by entrepreneur and philanthropist Joseph Deitch, The Elevate Prize is dedicated to giving unsung social entrepreneurs the necessary resources to scale their impact and to ultimately help inspire and awaken the hero in all of us.

"The Elevate Prize remains committed to finding a radically diverse group of innovative problem solvers and investing unconventional and personalized resources that bring greater visibility to them as leaders and the vital work they do. We make good famous," said Carolina García Jayaram, executive director, Elevate Prize Foundation.

The application process will take place in two phases. Applicants have till May 5 for Phase 1, which will include a short written application. A select number of those applicants will then be chosen for Phase 2, which includes a more robust set of questions later this summer. Ten winners will be announced in October 2021.

In addition to money, winners will also receive support from The Elevate Prize to help amplify their mission, achieve their goals, and receive mentorship and industry connections.

Last year, 1,297 candidates applied for the prize.

The 10 winners include Simprints, a UK-based nonprofit implementing biometric solutions to give people in the developing world hope and access to a better healthcare system; ReThink, a patented, innovative app that detects offensive messages and gives users a chance to reconsider posting them; and Guitars Over Guns, an organization bridging the opportunity gap for youth from vulnerable communities through transformational access to music, connectivity, and self-empowerment.

You can learn more about last year's winners, here.

If you know of someone or you yourself are ready to scale your impact, apply here today.

Maybe it's because I'm a writer, but I'm a bit of a pen snob. Even if I'm just making a list, I look for a pen that grips well, flows well, doesn't put too much or too little ink into the paper, is responsive-but-not-too-responsive to pressure, and doesn't suddenly stop working mid-stroke.

In other words, the average cheap ballpoint pen is out. (See? Snob.)

However, Oscar Ukono is making me reevaluate my pen snobbery. Because while I'm over here turning up my nose at the basic Bic, he's using them to create things like this:

Keep Reading Show less
Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less