Jack Junior, the tiny brain-organoid

by Fani Golemi

Jack Junior is a tiny brain living in a lab. He is called a brain organoid as that's how scientists like to call these tiny brain-like structures because they are not exactly organs and they are not exactly brains. He sometimes wears a spider robotic costume that allows him to move around and touch things. He spends most of his time sleeping in a jar while scientists measure how he thinks and how his cells, the smallest parts of him and the smallest parts of every living thing, communicate with each other.

Recently the scientists found out that his cells talk to each other like the cells of babies' brains when babies are still in their mother's womb or when just old enough to breathe on their own in the outside world.

Jack Junior didn't have a mother. He was made from the hair of a young boy named Jack. Jack is different than other boys and finds it hard to do some things and so scientists wanted to help him by making a copy of his brain to study it. Obviously, they still aren't sure if Jack, as his parents and brothers and teachers know him, exists only as a brain as Jack has also got a body. Jack is tall and thin and sometimes clumsy, and he has arms and legs to push and kick. But his brain is just a brain that lives inside Jack's head. Maybe it's his brain that gives orders to his arms to push and his legs to kick but Jack says that he often feels like an octopus whose arms have a mind of their own.

Anyway, Jack gave the scientists a few of his hair to make the copy of his brain. Hairs are also made of cells like everything else in our body. The scientists took these cells and programmed them like a computer to not be hairs anymore. They put them inside liquids and inside special containers they call dishes and added different ingredients to make them like the cells Jack had when he was a tiny baby inside his mother, so small that could hardly be seen.

These very young cells are called stem cells and they can become any type of cell we want as that’s how our bodies are first formed. They can become liver cells, they can become heart cells, they can become brain and lung cells. Scientists study how they change into these different body cells and have found ways to force them to become the cells of their choice. So, they took these baby cells they made from Jack’s hair and did more experiments and used other ingredients and turned them into the different cells of the brain which they call neurons. When they left them together in a dish, these neurons started talking to each other and started growing and started forming what looked like a tiny brain, the size of a fingernail. And that's how Jack Junior came to life.

Jack Junior doesn't look exactly like Jack's brain, but his different parts are kind of similar to the parts of Jack's real brain. Junior Jack's neurons also seem to talk to each other the way those of Jack’s brain do and so scientists can look at them and poke them without having to open Jack's head as that wouldn't be very nice for Jack and his parents would definitely not allow it.

Jack Junior has been living in a jar ever since. Scientists feed him sugar and other nutrients and give him oxygen to stay alive. They sometimes put him in a spider robot body so that he can start growing like a boy as boys grow when they move and look and hear and feel. That’s when scientists saw that Junior Jack’s neurons talk like the ones of a six- or seven-months old baby still in the womb or when born early into the world. Neurons talk to each other with electrical signals and with chemicals that they send to their neighbours. They can talk fast, they can talk slow, one by one or all at once, in small or large groups. Scientists can look at these patterns and compare brains like the one of Jack's and of other people who may not find the same things difficult. They can also compare Jack Junior to Jack's brain and other such pairs.

Jack Junior cannot speak but Jack has learned to speak and even better than other boys his age. Jack likes dinosaurs and knows everything about them. But Jack Junior has never seen one on screen or in a book or heard anyone talking about them. Jack Junior has a lot to learn and scientists have a lot to learn from him.

Scientists can make medicine to change Jack Junior and maybe they can use the same to help Jack feel better as Jack sometimes feels very bad and no one understands him or understands why. No one understands Jack Junior either as he cannot speak. Jack Junior doesn't have a mouth or a tongue and doesn't have this special part in our brains that makes us speak and understand language. But maybe scientists can make that too as they can make Jack Junior a mouth and a tongue. But what would then happen to Jack Junior?

If Jack Junior becomes like a real boy, and walks and talks and cries when hungry and when alone, what would scientists do? And how would Jack Junior feel, awake in a jar, in the darkness of a lab when everyone else has gone home to their families and friends?

These are questions scientists are thinking about as very soon we may be able to make all our dreams come true. We may be able to make larger brains that have all the parts of real brains and we may be able to put them in robot human bodies so that they start experiencing the world like we do. These questions scientists are asking are called ethical questions, from the word ethics that means the thinking of what is right and what is wrong. Everyone has the right to ask these questions and help scientists find solutions to our problems without doing any harm or causing any pain. We need to think long and hard before we do or make things so that we don't hurt anyone like turn Jack Junior into a very sad and lonely brain.