As we continue to explore the physiology of how zombies might be created (virus, fungus, radiation, electricity, man-made…) we continue to come across more and more information that has us delving into “mad scientist” territory. More and more, it seems plausible that a man-made zombie could be created, whether on purpose or by accident. Are we talking about something as sinister as a Resident Evil , Umbrella-like Corporation, or just scientists pushing the boundaries of science (in the name of the the betterment of mankind)?
In August of 2013, Austrian scientists at the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) in Vienna were successful in creating a very small functioning human brain, with a cortex, hippocampus and retinas (pictured in the top header image). These brain areas spontaneously developed when neurons were combined with stem-cells. It was about the size of a pea, but was missing, among other things, a cerebellum, which handles language and motor skills. So these brains, which are exhibiting signs of “spontaneous brain activity,” can theoretically see and think, but are unable to communicate. Watch this spontaneous brain activity at work in the following video from IMB:
The Austrian scientists describe it as a “human pluripotent stem cell-derived three-dimensional organoid culture system” that is “shown to recapitulate features of human cortical development”.
BBC Science’s James Gallagher explains:
They used either embryonic stem cells or adult skin cells to produce the part of an embryo that develops into the brain. The organoid is then placed into a spinning bioreactor, a nutrient bath that supplies nutrients and oxygen.
Professor Paul Matthews, from Imperial College London is blown away:
I think it’s just mind boggling! The idea that we can take a cell from a skin and turn it into, even though it’s only the size of a pea, [something that] is starting to look like a brain and starting to show some of the behaviours of a tiny brain, I think is just extraordinary.
The scientists see this as first steps to creating a living functional brain “model” to study various brain disorders, including growing parts of a brain that has been damaged by trauma or disease. As the human brain is so much more complex than a mouse brain, scientists see this as a huge breakthrough in that direction. Swedish scientists have recently announced they have been able to create neuron structures using similar techniques.
The mini-brain has survived for nearly a year at the Austrian Academy of Science. But without blood supply nutrients and oxygen that couldn’t penetrate into the middle of the brain-like structure, it hasn’t grown any larger than its current pea size.
Ethical questions are abound, of course, with people talking about the cruelty in creating something that might be able to sense and feel, but with no rights. The Austrian scientists assure us that they are a long way away from creating something that is conscious. How about creating something with minimal consciousness? Like, oh, maybe a zombie-like brain? By accident or on purpose.