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What Is The New Bio-Computer?

Context:

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) recently outlined a plan for a potentially revolutionary new area of research called “organoid intelligence”, which aims to create “bio-computers”.

Relevance:

GS III: Science and Technology

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. What is the new ‘bio-computer’?
  2. What is the premise of this tech?
  3. How do we study the brain?

What is the new ‘bio-computer’?

  • Researchers at JHU plan to create ‘bio-computers’ by combining brain organoids with machine learning.
  • The organoids will be grown inside flexible structures fitted with multiple electrodes, which can record the firing patterns of neurons and deliver electrical stimuli to mimic sensory stimuli.
  • The response pattern of neurons and their impact on human behaviour or biology will be analysed using machine-learning techniques.
  • Human neurons were recently grown on top of a microelectrode array that could record and stimulate these neurons.
  • Brain organoids can be developed using stem cells from individuals with neurodegenerative or cognitive disorders.
  • Comparing data on brain structure, connections, and signalling between ‘healthy’ and ‘patient-derived’ organoids can reveal the biological basis of human cognition, learning, and memory.
Bio-computers are not ready for commercial use
  • Brain organoids currently have a small size with less than 1 mm diameter and fewer than 100,000 cells on average, which limits their computing capacity.
  • Scaling up the brain organoid is essential to improve its computing capacity.
  • Thomas Hartung, a professor of evidence-based toxicology at JHU, is leading this work and hopes to establish long-term memory within 1-2 years.
  • Applying this technology to patient cell-derived brain organoids for conditions like autism and Alzheimer’s is already in progress.
  • The benefits of this technology for drug development may be seen in this decade.

What is the premise of this tech?

  • Researchers have faced challenges in understanding how the human brain works.
  • Traditionally, rat brains have been used to investigate neurological disorders in humans.
  • However, scientists are now building brain organoids, which are 3D cultures of brain tissue in the lab, to develop systems that are more relevant to humans.
  • These “mini-brains” are constructed using human stem cells and capture many structural and functional features of a developing human brain.
  • However, they lack the sensory inputs required for the human brain to develop into the complex organ it is and do not have blood circulation, which limits their growth.

How do we study the brain?

  • There are currently limitations in studying the human brain using lab-grown brain organoids.
  • To address these limitations, scientists have recently transplanted human brain organoids into rat brains to form connections with the rat brain and receive circulating blood.
  • While this system allows for the study of brain diseases in a more human context, it still has limitations since the organoids are in a rat-brain microenvironment.
  • The effects of drugs in this model will need to be interpreted through various behavioral tests in rats, which may not be representative enough.
  • Thus, there is a need to further develop more human-relevant systems to study the brain.

-Source: The Hindu


March 2024
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