Brainstorm: Anima Mundi

Mark Skylar-Scott 


We'd like to introduce you to a very special neuroscience project that we are currently conducting in the setting of a traditional fine arts museum.

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Skin – brain – mind?

At the exhibition Anima Mundi in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, Netherlands, we present an installation about research with brain tissue that has been made in the lab:  brain organoids.  

As scientists (Eswar and Mark) and an ethicist (Jeantine), we are involved in research  into the engineering of tissue and organs through very advanced synthetic biology and genomic methods.

When engineering (human) brain tissue, many questions arise, and it forces us to reflect upon our brain, what it is, and how it functions. More particularly, we need to think about the so-called "emergent properties" of the brain: What is consciousness? How does it arise? What can we know about our mind? Does it make a difference if we look at human brains or animal brains? There are many other new, unanswered questions like these, touching upon deep philosophical and ethical problems.

The Anima Mundi exhibition focuses on these and other existential questions, in a great variety of contexts. "Anima" (Latin) is a very rich notion that stands for air, wind, breeze, for breathing, life, and for soul, spirit, vital principle. The question that the exhibition (curated by Hans van der Ham) raises is  concerned with  people's  thoughts about "ensoulment", and how these thoughts have been expressed in art—over the ages, and across continents and cultures. We are delighted that we have been invited to show another context where these questions arise—neuroscience—when we purposefully engineer human brain tissue.

In the Anima Mundi exhibition, we show a video in Dutch and English, in which we explain how brain tissue can be grown in the lab—outside of the body—from a few skin cells. From a tiny piece of skin (a skin biopsy: the retrieval of a small round sample, 3mm diameter and 3mm thickness) fibroblasts are isolated. These are grown in the lab and transformed into so-called pluripotent stem cells: cells that can differentiate and turn into stem cells of any type of cell. Special culture conditions enable differentiation into neural stem cells, which subsequently can develop further into the various cell types of the nervous system. Differentiated cells can self-organize and form tissue: this way, brain tissue can be formed through the self-organization of neural cells. Further development results in a 3D neural tissue structure: a brain organoid.

Early research showed that the molecular features of a brain disorder in the individual from whom the skin cells were taken also appear in the brain organoid. With that, the brain organoid enables the study of brain disorders in an individualized model, outside of the body.

So far, brain organoids have been very small. The organoid on display in Anima Mundi is approximately 1mm in size. The original size on day 40 was 2mm, but the chemical fixation process made it shrink. In the future, brain organoids may be much larger and have increased in similarity to the real brain. Will these brain organoids have brain properties or functions, such as sentience, memory, or consciousness? Could there be a "mind"? If such properties would emerge, what would that mean for brain organoid research?