'A pressing need' - Ethical debate raised over growing 'mini-brains' in search for a cure for neurological disorders

Around one billion people suffer from neurological disorders like Alzheimers and Parkinsons, and researchers around the are world looking for cures and ways of prevention.
Recently, they've started growing simplified versions of human brain tissue in labs.

One such lab is the Brain Bank, where the brain tissue of around 800 donors is stored at Auckland University.

Sir Richard Faull, the director for the Centre for Brain Research at Auckland University, says the donated brain tissue is making a huge difference because "that’s the brain we want to cure".

"These brains are gifted to us by families when they die of Alzheimers, Huntingtons, Parkinsons, epilepsy, motorneuron disease. They are the most valuable gift you can ever give to research," Sir Faull said.

Mike Dragunow, an Auckland University professor and neuroscientist, says studying human brain cells is "the best way possible moving forward".

"We're using the cells to study the disease and then using the cells to test drugs that may treat the diseases," Mr Dragunow said.

The world-leading research has managed to slow the spread of brain tumour cells in the lab, as well as discovering that the brain can not only repair its cells, it can also generate new ones.

"When you see people in families with Alzheimers, motorneuron disease, epilepsy, brain tumours, you understand there is a pressing need.

"It's our duty to try and do something about that."

Overseas, they're taking it even further, growing brain tissue from stem cells.

These "brain organoids" are in their infancy.

Hank Greely, a Stanford University law professor specialising in the ethical, legal and social issues rising from advancements in biosciences, believes in the future, we will be able to create "big organoids large enough to make us nervous probably at some point".

"They’re about 6 million neurons, but human brains have 89 billion neurons, so six million is pretty small," Mr Greely said.

"We don't understand consciousness at all, but we understand them enough to know they’re too small to be conscious. Multiply that by 100 times and it gets trickier."

Mr Greely, along with researchers from universities like Duke, Standford, Harvard and Yale gathered to talk about ethics as the world gets closer to creating a functional human brain.

"The big question is what's going on inside that thing? Is there a human consciousness? If it's complicated enough to feel pain, that would be worrisome. The real tricky thing is how do we tell?"

Mr Greely says research is accelerating, so guidelines should be put in place.

"If we were to take some skin cells from you and me and turn them into organioids, should we tell you what we're going to do with them?

"Already, the work was beginning to raise eyebrows and cause us to wonder where we are going."

Scientists in the country are unsure whether we will ever create a working brain, but are certain people will try.

Scientists are growing simplified versions of human brain tissue in labs in the search for a cure. Source: 1 NEWS



Good Sorts: Meet the Kiwi woman caring for children on the other side of the world

This week’s Good Sort is Wellington school teacher Julie Ann Kmal. Source: 1 NEWS

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Hundreds of Kiwi troops attend War Games in the Pacific Islands

Specialised bomb disposal Navy divers move carefully underwater, hoping the water masks their presence.

They search for and detonate explosives planted around Epi Island’s coastline by a make-believe armed hostile group.

This is all part of a training exercise named Tropic Major, which has been carried out by the New Zealand Defence Force.

Around 500 servicemen and women from the joint forces – Army, Navy and Airforce – are taking part in the Vanuatu simulation.

It’s an exercise that costs around $3.5 million, which also includes other side projects the NZDF is working on in the islands.

The war games start like this: A criminal with international connections has found his way to New Zealand, but then he escapes to Vanuatu and starts to grow a network of thugs on Epi Island.

They’re terrorising locals, extorting them, and they have even killed a person.

In this exercise, the Vanuatu government is unable to cope and so it calls in the New Zealand Defence Force.

As the assignment continues, the divers give the all clear and a bit later small Zodiac boats filled with ground troops leave the giant HMNZS Canterbury.

They storm a beach on Epi, in a bid to hunt down the criminals.

NH90 helicopters circle above this usually peaceful island paradise.

Epi Island itself has 10,000 people, but only one police officer.

“To me as one police officer, I think I don’t have much strength that I can deal with such issues,” says Corporal Daniel.

He, and other island leaders, say people worry about whether they’d be well protected should a gang of criminals try and take over the island.

Chief Varasliu Supapao says “The people worry a lot about criminals, so with the exercises we really like it cause this one can stop criminals and other crimes.”

The NZDF is carrying out this exercise to not only test its military might, but also to practice how it would approach a real-life situation like this.

“We conduct operations throughout the world. We've got people right now in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan… so the need for us to understand the environments we're operating in and to see how our capabilities respond there is vital to us being an effective fighting force,” says the man in charge of this whole exercise, Navy Captain Garin Golding, the Joint Taskforce Commander.

He points to Pacific Island conflicts in recent history where the NZDF responded.

Last year’s NZDF operating budget was nearly two billion dollars.

The previous government announced a 20 billion dollar investment over 15 years, but the new government is reviewing that and the findings are due within a month.

“Defence is expensive if you want to do it properly, and I think New Zealand actually gets pretty good value for the fairly modest sums that it spends on its defence force,” says Professor Robert Ayson, from the Strategic Studies department at Wellington’s Victoria University.

As the simulation continues, with fake ammunition being fired and smoke bombs hazing up the island air, the criminals are caught and arrested by the local police officer.

The make believe scenario ends well.

They all hope any potential real world conflict also has a happy ending.

1 NEWS reporter Arrun Soma got exclusive access on Epi Island in Vanuatu. Source: 1 NEWS