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.

Heroes

Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

RELATED: This fascinating comic explains why we shouldn't use some Native American designs.

Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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