Scientists Grew Neanderthal Brains and They Want it to Learn
The Remarkable Neanderthal
Neanderthals were a branch of the human family who vanished around 40,000 years ago. What makes this ancient hominid so special is the fact that they walked with anatomically modern humans. DNA analysis of people today proved that the two even interbred and that most humans alive today carry a small percentage of this extinct cousin.
Neanderthals were stockier and had rougher facial features. Though their popular image is that of goofish cavemen, they were far from stupid. Here are remarkable things that have come to light about them.
- They used carved symbols
- Complex fire making tools have been discovered at Neanderthal sites
- They had organized homes and some sites carried evidence that hot water was “on tap” from boiling pits near hearths
- Bones and teeth showed signs of herbal remedies used to lessen pain such as toothache and arthritis
- They cared for their disabled; one particular individual with severe spine and hip problems lived into his fourties but couldn't have done so without the help of others
- The dead received burials. When the disabled man (above) died, he was buried in a sunken stone room – an undertaking that took massive dedication and effort
- What appears to be educational toys (miniature axes) have been found in Europe
- When their hyoid bone was discovered in 1989, it proved Neanderthals were capable of complex language. Found in the tongue, the bone's identical location to the human hyoid separated them from other primates whose hyoid is positioned in such a manner that prevents speech
- There's a chance that they had boats. Their unique stone tools were found on Crete, a place too far away from their normal territory to swim. The only way they could've crossed about 40 kilometers of ocean was if some kind of maritime skill was involved
From Cave to Petri Dish
The Neanderthal is back, so to speak, and now reside in laboratory petri dishes. Not the whole person either, just small lumps of brain. The idea behind resurrecting extinct noodles was to better understand why this enigmatic hominid died out when humans survived. There are many theories, including warfare between the two groups that didn't end so well for the Neanderthals. However, no solid story regarding the collapse of what was an intelligent, tool-making species, has ever been proven. For this reason, scientists decided to look for clues in their cognition and behaviour. The best place to look for those are the brain.
How to Build a Brain
One might be excused for wondering how a Californian laboratory whipped up Neanderthal grey matter when no cavemen are around to volunteer for a cheek swab. It was time to get innovative. First, the team looked at the Neanderthal genome (the complete genetic code). This twisty strand of extinct DNA had previously been gleaned from fossil skeletons. It was then compared to the human genome. The next step was stem cells, extremely useful for their ability to mature into any kind of cell needed by the body, from toenail to liver lining. In this case, they were harvested from a human and “encouraged” by the gene-editing tool CRISPR to become Neanderthal brain cells.
Neanderthal brains are not the first kind of noggin to be grown in the lab. Human brains won that first place a long time ago. Either way, such incomplete lumps of neural tissue are called organoids. The first Neanderthal mini-brains took six to eight months to grow and only reached a size of 0.2 inches (0.5 centimeters). A bigger size isn't possible since the organoids don't have their own blood supply and instead, were kept alive with nutrient transfusions. A full brain won't make its creepy appearance until scientists figure out how to design a functioning network of artificial blood vessels. However, this didn't mean the organoids revealed nothing.
The Same and yet so Different
Despite all the remarkable human-like qualities that keep surfacing about Neanderthals, their brain tissue revealed big differences between the two species. The first instance became obvious as soon as the neural lumps finished growing. Unlike human mini-brains, which are usually spherical, the Neanderthal batch were lumpy and popcorn-like. What caused the strange shape remains puzzling but two things might be responsible – several long structures, resembling tubes, and because some cells grew faster than others during the maturing phase.
The biggest clue the organoids had to offer about Neanderthal extinction came when scientists compared synaptic connections (communication links between brain cells). Compared to humans, Neanderthals had fewer synapses. Instead of the sophisticated neural networks found in humans, the organoids resembled mini-brains that had previously been cultivated from modern individuals with autism. If archaeological discoveries are anything to go by, Neanderthal society was a mentally capable one. For this reason, it's difficult to explain the similarity to autistic brains. It could be the key to why this branch of the human family died out or it could mean nothing at all.
The Cyber Neanderthal is Coming
If researchers have their way, Neanderthal brains won't stay inactive lumps in a petri dish. As such, they cannot reveal how the brain actually functioned. To break through this frustrating limit and come the closest anyone can hope to experiencing the mind of a Neanderthal, they're planning something that sounds like science fiction baloney. Imagine a robot moving around and it's being operated by a Neanderthal brain that learns. This may not be so impossible to achieve. The project already designed robots that measure electrical signals from human organoids. Researchers hope to take the merge of mechanic-and-organic even further and one day create robots capable of navigating the environment through what their Neanderthal organoids remember.
© 2018 Jana Louise Smit